Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night — Using a Silent Scene. Thanks, Folger!

Today we experimented a little with video.  In order to understand the events of Act II, Scene 5 of Twelfth Night, I asked students to compose videos that captured the key events of the scene.  Here’s an example of what students were able to do in about 30 minutes (followed by an hour or so of learning i-movie and editing by me). I got the concept from the geniuses at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Thanks, Folger!

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Whose Shakespeare? MY SHAKESPEARE!

As a warm up to this year’s Shakespeare plays, I had students read and perform Act 3, scene 3 — the scene where Cinna the Poet is confronted, attacked, and (possibly) murdered by a group of angry citizens.

This lesson is borrowed from one of the many resources available on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s web page.

So why take the time to act out a scene from an entirely different play?  Because this scene is a very short and very wonderful example of what makes reading Shakespeare such a valuable experience for students:  It forces the student to read creatively.


This scene is only about a minute long, and the language is very simple.  There’s nothing tricky about pronouncing the lines or understanding what people are saying to each other.  

But in this scene, each line poses a choice for the person reading/acting it out, and there are many details that have to be added by the reader/actor. 

So after having the students read the scene a line at a time, and then a sentence at a time — sitting n a circle — I asked them for some details:

  • The scene is a “street.”  That’s pretty vague; what details would you add?
  • What is it about Cinna that makes these four citizens confront him?
  • Where are the four citizens coming from?  What have they been doing?  
  • Imagine that every character in the scene is holding an object.  What is it?
  • What happens to Cinna the Poet at the end of the scene?

The responses were all coherent and logical, and most importantly, they were all created by the students. One group imagined a group of thugs in a car pulling up next to Cinna as he waited to cross a street.  Another had the four citizens walking out of a bar.  Another added a mother with a baby to the scene.  One group had Cinna typing a text message, and one of the citizens snatched the phone out of his hand.

Reflecting on what the students did during these two classes, I realized that reading Shakespeare is an inherently creative activity.  As I explained to the students, 

  • There aren’t any instructions on HOW the people are feeling
  • There aren’t any directions on WHAT to do while the lines are spoken
  • Every character has a back story.

And because of these “missing” pieces, the interpretation of every scene is up to the reader.  When students understand that they own the characters’ actions, then their reading becomes an act of creation. And if they create the meaning, they own the language.  




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The Inspiring Story of Cain’s Arcade

Here are two inspiring stories. The first is the story of a brilliant nine year old who built an arcade out of auto parts boxes.

The story moved me for two reasons: First, Cain is an inspiring kid — with remarkable ingenuity and persistence. Second, Nirvan Mullick, the filmmaker, saw the potential for a story, and he made it happen. Nirvan said that the thing that amazed him about the project’s success was that “a small gesture can change the life of a child.”


Thank you, Nirvan Mullick, for reminding me of this great truth in education.


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Teaching Othello — Avoiding the Iago Effect

In his lecture to the Teaching Shakespeare Institute yesterday, Dr. Michael Whitmore described a recent conversation.

“In five minutes or less, explain to me why schools should teach Shakespeare,” someone asked him.  In reply, he picked on play that has particular value: Othello. Here’s what he told the guy:

“Othello is a play that shows you what happens when you encounter someone who tells you exactly the lies that you want to hear.”

The more I think about Othello, the more I understand it’s a study of the incredible power of language to accomplish both beautiful and horrible ends. To illustrate the point, here’s a brief recap of the story:

Othello, a Moor, has risen to become the star General of the Venetian Army. He has overcome his “otherness” (he is African and black in a European, white society) and become a very important military and political leader. He falls in love with and secretly marries Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator. Goaded by Iago, the arch-villain of the play, the senator summons Othello to a special meeting of the senate, which acts as a kangaroo court to try Othello for using witchcraft to steal Desdemona. But Othello acquits himself very well, showing his rhetorical skill. Through his own mastery of this foreign language, Othello persuades the senate of his worthiness of Desdemona. They permit the marriage and send him to Cyprus, which must be defended from an imminent attack by the Turkish Fleet. Desdemona follows him there.

But as soon as Othello arrives in Cyprus, he receives the news that the Turkish Fleet has encountered a storm and sunk. With no threat remaining, Othello and Desdemona should enjoy a honeymoon in Cyprus. But instead, something happens: Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful to him. So much for the honeymoon. Since it’s a tragedy, you can imagine how it all ends.

But how is it possible that the Othello can be destroyed in this way? How does a leader, a war-hero, a statesman become a babbling, suicidal murderer?  He listens to Iago. And Iago is a controlling master of human frailty.

Iago knows rhetoric. He recognizes the available means of persuasion in any situation. And in all cases, that available means is an appeal to fear. Iago destroys Othello by telling him “exactly the lies that he wants to hear,” or as I prefer to say, by telling exactly the lies that Othello is predisposed to believe. Iago understands what many people seem to understand today: if you appeal to people’s basest fears and deepest insecurities, you can own them. He easily identifies Othello’s insecurity with Desdemona: Othello fears that she might not love him back because he’s too old, too foreign, and too black. Incidentally, Iago also controls his own wife, his friends, and anyone he wants to use — including Desdemona’s senator father — by preying on their specific, unique, individual fears.

And so in Act III Scene 3, Iago begins to feed Othello’s hungry fears. In the space of about twenty lines of dialog, Othello the hero leader is practically begging Iago to “give thy worst of thoughts the worst of words.” By the end of the scene, Othello demands of Iago, “Give me the ocular proof.” Othello, who even in front of a jury of Venetian senators stood firm and fearless, is instantly reduced to a jealous mass of hatred and self-loathing. He says that Desdemona’s name, once “as fresh as Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black as mine own face.”

With just a little persuasion, Iago has amplified Othello’s insecurities of his own “begrimed and black” face, and in the process, he believes that Desdemona can only see him in this way, and is therefore unfaithful to him. Soon after, he kneels with Iago, saying,

…I greet thy love

Not with vain thanks but with acceptance bounteous

But how does Iago manage to pull this off? How can Othello greet these fears with “acceptance bounteous”? How can he see himself as “begrimed,” rather than black and beautiful?

For me, the search for these answers is what makes this play so important: People succumb to the Iago effect all the time. Iago’s voice is inside everyone. When a real Iago comes along and adds to that voice — tapping into our fears and insecurities — and tells us “exactly the lies that we want to hear,” then we can be owned. It happens to my students all the time. And to adults, too. Tragically, when the appeal to fear works, we greet our worst fears about ourselves “with acceptance bounteous” and forget all of our redeeming qualities.

Shakespeare created works of unbelievable beauty, and he did it while educating us about love, fear and loathing, and the power of language. In Hamlet, Claudius kills the king by pouring poison in his ears. In Othello, Shakespeare teaches us you don’t need a potion of exotic herbs — Iago murders with only words.

There is plenty of beauty in the language of Othello, but for me — for now — the most compelling reason to remember and teach the play is to be instructed in avoiding the Iago Effect.

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Why English? How English?

Lately I’ve tried to put myself inside the head of a student — NOT one who wants to grow up and be an English teacher, but one of the many busy, distracted, and bored young men or women who have sat in my class and asked themselves a question that regrettably, I didn’t have an answer for:

What am I supposed to learn?



After 19 years of pretending to teach English, I’m finally starting to figure this one out. Ultimately, my answer is this:


The trick, of course, is to help students to lose that need. And the secret is this: It’s not a trick.

When my students feel this compulsive, borderline psychotic urge to know what they “have to know,” I try to remind myself that this need is ingrained in the student because for most of his or her conscious life the school experience has been similar to that of a goose being prepared for foie gras — a steady force-feeding of literary cliches, platitudes, and other varieties of balderdash — in the hopes that they’ll produce beautifully written restatements of everything I’ve told them.

In these moments (where typically an earnest student ask me what’s on the test) I have to remind myself to do three things:

  1. Tell them clearly what I want them to know.
  2. Give that student a chance to share her own ideas about what’s important in the book — and what she cares about.
  3. Make sure that the students understand that their ideas matter as much or more than their memory of what I want them to know.

None of these ideas is tricky…. But each one requires planning. The first is fairly easy, since all I have to do is pick something. The second and third call for some empathy. How can I plan this activity so that the student finds something to share an authentic idea?

At yesterday’s session from the Folger Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute, I got a great lesson from Sue Biondo-Hench. She showed us this poem from Walt Whitman:

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

When I share this poem with students, I can tell them very easily what I want them to know: The speaker compares his soul to a spider (metaphor) to illustrate his need to connect and anchor to something.

With two very simple and exquisitely beautiful questions, though, Sue provided a hook that ensures that students have their own ideas — ideas that are clearly more important and interesting than an analysis of the metaphor:

  1. What connections have you made that anchor you?
  2. What connections are you longing to make?

My guess is that very few of the students will write and/or talk about their anchors to correct answers, or their connections to getting good grades. My hope is that they will be able to talk about how they sometimes feel like that spider. And if they can find themselves in that spider, then class is dismissed.
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Mr. Parsons’ senior speech

To my students in the class of 2012:

Congratulations!  You have reached the last class of your High School English careers.  I hope that you have found our year together rewarding and fun… and above all, I hope that you come away from this course feeling that you have learned something.  I know that I have.  Poet and fiction writer Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Before this year started, I had already started to try to live and work with this thought in mind.  In this year, however, I think I learned more about putting this idea into practice than ever before.  For the first time in more than a decade I had one responsibility:  teaching.  Teaching full-time has made me understand that “one responsibility” is really 82 responsibilities – each one with different hopes, fears, needs, strengths, and challenges in English and in life.

One of the things I’ve tried to do is encourage you 82 to get your ideas “out there.”  The way we build knowledge and share ideas has changed enormously during your lifetimes.  When you were born, people like me were just beginning to discover the internet, which we connected to through dial-up connections to land-line telephones.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask your grandparents. Information still came from books and magazines and newspapers.  And network TV.  Most people didn’t carry cell phones (and those of us who did needed an extra pocket to accommodate their bulk).  Text messages didn’t exist.  Personally, I’ve been slow to adapt to the new technology, but this year I tried to make our work here in the classroom a little closer to the real-world communication tools that you’ll be using in life.  I hope that our experiments with blogs, twitter accounts, and other paperless forms of communication have bee as rewarding for you as they have been for me.  I also hope that this class has helped you to feel more confident about expressing yourself in writing.  You all have important things to say, and I hope that somewhere down the road, I’ll read something that you’ve written.

For those of you who have been learning English, I’d like to say Thank you for taking a year or more to learn about my home culture and language.  You took a big risk in coming here to live and learn.  I’m sure that you experienced a lot of challenges during your time here – coming to a new place is fraught with challenge.  But now you are completing this part of the challenge.  All of you are earning high school diplomas.  To all of you who have reached out to someone from a culture different from your own, congratulations!  You’ve chosen to make your lives a little richer by sharing yourself with someone else.  In order to make the world better, we all need to follow your example.

For some of you, the experience of English class may still leave you with a fundamental question:  Why do we do this?  For you, here’s is one final attempt at answering it:

All academic study gives us knowledge, and knowledge is a good thing.  By knowing stuff, we are able to understand how the world works and, one would hope, we are able to predict how things are going to turn out.  Mathematics gives us order and provides models so that we can make reliable predictions.  History shows us where we came from and gives us a sense of where we may be going.  The sciences show us what we’re made of and how all of these forces and chemicals and atoms combine to make our world and our universe function as it does.  But what about English?

I believe that Literature is special because it gives us a kind of knowledge reserved for us humans:  It shows us how people feel.  Literature gives us a chance to get inside of someone’s soul and live, for a time, that other person’s joy and suffering.  For all 82 of you, I hope that over the year you have felt some of the joy that I find in reading great literature.  If at some point, you imagined the world as Homer may have experienced it, or pictured the labyrinth of junk stacked up by Langley – or perhaps if you felt the rare pleasure of blindly and recklessly riding their bicycle through New York, or enjoyed the brief freedom of leading a group of crazy hippies through and out of the house – or imagined the years that Homer spent trapped in his own blindness and deafness while buried inside a fortress of relics, memories, and newspapers – that’s great.  If you suffered a little bit with Macbeth as he tried to do too much, too fast, or if you imagined Lady Macbeth’s guilty conscience and the indelible stain of blood on her hands, or if you felt Macduff’s sense of pain at losing his family and his country – and then his joy of winning it back (Hail!  King of Scotland!) then you got some of what English class offers.

I hope that you got to live inside Beowulf’s head as he fought the monsters that threatened his people – after all, you all have and will continue to have your own monsters to fight.  And I hope that Grendel reminded you that some of the monsters that we fight are really beasts of our own making.  I also hope that Grendel’s suffering and misery serves as a reminder that many of those who cause suffering do so because they themselves suffer, too.  I also hope that the literature gives you a sense of hope.  Just as easily as we can create monsters, we also can find the way to the better part of ourselves – perhaps without having to rip anyone’s arm off. I hope that through reading Tim O’Brien’s stories about Vietnam, you got to share, for a while, the many conflicting thoughts that a soldier lives.  I also hope that O’Brien’s writing helped you to find some truth in the idea that many of the most important things we live are so big and important that we can only understand them through fiction and metaphor.

At the end of the year, you all selected something to read on your own.  The book on the syllabus is a brilliant and great work of literature – and in its own way, I think that it tries to get at many of the truths that we experienced in other readings this year.  I hope that you’ll pick it up sometime.  But I also know that many of you picked up and read a book that you enjoyed – perhaps for the first time.  For those of you who discovered reading as a new way to share the human condition with the characters in a story and feel what they feel, I’d like to say, “Welcome.”  You’ve entered a world of limitless discovery.  The more you read, the more you’ll learn about what it means to be human.

So… “Hwaet!”

As I look back on this year, and think about what I’ve learned and tried to accomplish, I’m hopeful that you have found an opportunity, one way or another, to share in the celebration of the human condition – in all of its  beauty, horror, sadness and joy, and perhaps above all, in wonder.  Thank you all for giving English class a chance, for taking your own risks, and for sharing yourselves with me and with each other.  I feel privileged to have been your teacher for a year.

Have a great life!


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All Quiet on the Western Front — Chapters 6-7

In today’s class students worked in seven different small groups. Each group moved through the room, stopping at a different passage from chapter 6 or 7 from All Quiet on the Western Front.

Each group annotated their own passage and wrote some comments on it. Then all of the groups rotated to a different passage, where they added annotations and commented on what their peers had written.

I was very pleased with the way it worked out — students definitely had some good ideas about what they were reading, and the interractive nature of the activity provided students with opportunities to make their own observations and share in a conversation about them with the rest of the class. Here are photos of the seven annotated passages.








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Presentation on “Style,” “Night Life,” and “Stockings.”

Ryan gave a quick summary of what happens in O’Brien’s story, “Style.” In it, the soldiers find a girl — a victim of a bomb that has destroyed her home and killed both of her parents. Rather than grieving, though, the girl is dancing — to no music. The soldiers don’t really know how to repond to the crazy girl who dances instead of grieving. Azar makes fun of her, and Dobbins gets angry with Azar. Ryan asked the group how we would respond. I think that I would let Azar be a jerk if he wannts to — Like the girl, he’s just dealing with the horrible tragedy in the only way he can. I would, however, keep on thinking about Azar as a horrible person.

Wes explained the trauma that Rat Kiley is experiencing in “Night Life” and asked other students to offer their ideas for what they would do if they found themselves in his position. What would they do if they knew that the war was making them crazy?

Efren selected a group of quotes from the story “Stockings” and had students arrange them in order. Then he summarized the story and asked people to share what their own good luck charms are (similar to the stockings that Henry Dobbins would wear around his neck).

Then Luis invited the group to whare their thoughts about “handling” the different situations.


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Presentation on “In the Field” and “Field Trip”

Today Allie, Amanda, Stephany, and Mallory presented the stories “In the Field” and “Field Trip.” Amanda gave a summary of the two stories, and Steph and Allie led the class in a series of questions about the two stories. Mallory presented the class with a cake, which was delicious.

At the end, they asked students to write a blog post explaining the importance of the field, and asked that students consider how they would react if their father brought them to a place that was special — as this place was to the author.


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Presentation on “Speaking of Courage” and “Notes”

The students have asked the class to write a blog post respondig to the followig questio: “Think of a time when you felt you had to use a lot of courage in your life.

Here I go:
For me, the times that I’ve felt the need for courage have been the times when I have to own up to something

Now they have a question about the title of the story, “Speaking of Courage.” I think it’s a good idea to break the title into two parts: “Speaking,” and “Courage.” First, Speaking. Norman is alone for this entire story — ironically, he never “speaks” to anyone — except a machine that tries to take his order at a drive-in restaurant. His conversatios are all in his imagination, and he is always thinking about what his father — or his ex-girlfriend — would say to him. In most cases, these people only allow him a chance to tell his story (of how he was NOT courageous) and then they offer some kind of encouragement to Norman. For the other part of the title, it seems that “courage” is an elusive idea — and ideal. The narrator often talks about how heroism and “courage” are things recognized publicly, but which are very hard to understand or measure. I think that courage, honor, and truth are probably the most important words in this collection of stories.

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